What We Learned: Tech Tools for Startups

At least twice a month I sit down with people thinking about starting an organization.  So much of the conversation centers around where to start, and what to do first.  The central piece of advice I give to people is to start building; that you build your organization brick by brick.  

A lot of those first bricks are digital. The first things every startup needs are a website and and an email address, for example, because both are important signals to people that the thing you’re building is real.  

Tech tools make it easier than ever to start something.  But coming from an institution living in the digital dark ages (my last computer in Congress had a floppy drive… in 2014), most of these tools were foreign to me.

We’ve leveraged tech tools to save huge amounts of time and money.  In the three years of TechCongress, here is what’s worked for us, and what we’ve learned.  

Website, Images, and Logo

The first thing every organization needs is a website.  I’d worked on some Wordpress sites, and with some HTML, but I wanted something easier, as I didn’t want to have to think about templates or do any custom coding. Squarespace was a breeze.  Although I’d bought the TechCongress url using Namecheap, I was able to easily connect the domain.  Squarespace has easy templates for different kinds of pages— like the About Us and Blog— and has easy integrations with other platforms like Mailchimp (for collecting newsletter signups) and Google.

At some point you’ll need to populate your site with images.  I bought a license for Snagit ($49.49) which allows for easy screen capture and editing tools.  PicMonkey is a free web editing tool that I’ve used for a variety of applications, most regularly for cropping images of our staff and fellows into round circles (which the research says is friendlier to the user online).  

You’ll also need some stock images to populate your website.  I use a variety of sites— Google image searches for images under creative commons helpful, but I also use Unsplash and Women of Color in Tech Flickr page to find good stock photos.  

Professional logos can run in the thousands to tens of thousands of dollars, but I used an easy creation tool called Tailor Brands.  For $99 you can get a good, basic logo that looks pretty professional.  Important item to note, however: its very important that your logo match the font and style sheet of your website and other materials.  Ours still doesn’t, which is why it’s not on our website.  At some point I’ll pay a designer to build us a logo that does, but this is worth keeping in mind.  

Email and Newsletters

For email, using the Google Suite is a no brainer.  I won’t spend time here but the combination of custom email with Calendar, Hangouts, Drive and the variety of add ons (some of which I’ll talk more about  about).  If the first thing every organization needs is a website, the second thing is the custom email address.

While we’re talking about email, email scheduling is also critically important— especially since I’m on the west coast, working three hours later than the east.  If I send an email at 5:00pm west coast time to the east coast, the recipient will be getting it at 8:00pm.  Sending an email at 8:00pm is a surefire way to get your email ignored.  Rather than sending late night emails to the east coast, I increasingly schedule my emails to be delivered the following morning using Boomerang.  It’s $5/month for the premium version, and is an easy add-on to Gmail.

For newsletters, we use Mailchimp.  It’s easy to use, intuitive and has a free version for lists up to 2000 subscribers.  The third thing every startup should do is start collecting names for their outreach list (and feature a sign up prominently on their front page).  Squarespace also has an easy plug-in so you can collect subscribers in Mailchimp or a Google Spreadsheet.

Organizing / Fundraising

I can’t speak more positively about crowdfunding, and would encourage everyone to do it.  Crowdfunding is helpful for the money itself, yes, but more importantly, it’s a way to organize your supporters, and show that what you’re doing is real (and it’s not just an idea you’re pontificating on).  Just as importantly, it gets everyone that contributes bought-in to your success.  This is exactly what happened to me.  

I set up an Indiegogo campaign to raise $5,000 to pay for a pre-accelerator program, a trip to a conference, and some other basic items.  A friend from Capitol Hill, Erin Katzelnick-Wise, saw the campaign and sent it to Steven Overly, a reporter formerly at the Washington Post, who had recently published a story about former Congressional staff that had launched startups.  Steven reached out and wrote a profile on TechCongress.  And this was the thing that catapulted the organization.  Now, when reaching out to funders, instead of sending a one-pager, I could send a piece from the Washington Post!  This gave me much more credibility.  TechCongress was a real thing.

There are a few tools for crowdfunding.  I used Indiegogo, and even though I love that you can offer perks for donors (like a handwritten thank you note, shout-out on social media, or invitation to our launch event) which although intuitive and easy to use, it didn’t allow me to raise my fundraising target.  This, to me, is a fatal flaw.  At an early stage, sometimes you just don’t know how much you can raise.  I raised the $5,000 in 20 hours, and I have no doubt that with a higher goal and proactive outreach (not to mention the subsequent Washington Post profile) I could have raised $20,000 or $25,000 or more.  If I had to do it over again, I’d likely use GoFundMe.  Although you can’t build perks into the process, it automatically increases your fundraising target when you do.  (Kickstarter is also an option, but it’s designed for startups building products, so it’s less relevant to this discussion.)

Finally, some people use CRMs to keep track of their contacts and outreach.  I tried a few — Nimble and Contactually—  but never developed enough of a rhythm with them to be all that useful.  But some may find them worthwhile.  

Recruiting and Hiring

Our foremost priority for hiring is inclusivity.  Groups like Project Include and the TechHire Initiative and have aggregated years of research about how to build diverse and inclusive organizations.  We wanted to bake this into the culture and the process from day 1, and there are many tech tools we’ve used to help us do this.  

Who you end up recruiting depends in large part on where you recruit, and so we’ve set a goal that at least 51% of our recruitment outreach is directed to underserved communities.  We’ve built a Google Spreadsheet with tabs for 1) groups for outreach and 2) influencers within priority outreach communities.  In total, there are over 400 contacts on those sheets.  Sending 400 individual emails  is incredibly time-intensive, so we use Yet Another Mail Merge (YAMM) to send individualized messages (customizing name and organization) to large groups of individuals.   YAMM is a Google Spreadsheet add on.  You build a list of your targets, including names and email addresses, and it syncs the spreadsheet with your Gmail account, and allows you to send several hundred messages at once.  And if you don’t mess up your spacing or spelling, the recipient never knows the difference.  

Research says the content of your job posting or recruitment outreach is also hugely important.  Certain words attract some communities, and turn off others.  Textio is an incredible tool that scans the language of your job posts and flags words that are highly masculine or feminine.  It provides simple, easy tips for better engagement (for example, using more “yous” and bulleted lists, and using less jargon and acronyms) and gives you a inclusivity score.  We scored just 23% on our first job post.  After many rounds of edits we were up to a 97%.

I’ve written pretty widely about Screendoor. We’re now in our third year using it, and couldn’t be happier.  If you’re selecting in any way— for prospective hires, or fellows, or for grant applications— Screendoor is a great tool.  The features I have found most helpful include:

  • Easy user interface, with custom permissioning for different levels of users or reviewers;

  • The ability to anonymize the review process, and blind fields like name or email address, in order to reduces unconscious bias on the scoring process;

  • Simple messaging features, which allow you to send status updates to applicants as necessary;

  • The ability to embed your forms or application on other websites.  Importantly, the form autosaves any content entered after each keystroke.  

One other key strategy we used to raise awareness about the program is nominations.   Requesting supporters or influencers to nominate candidates in their network for the program is a really easy and effective “Ask,” and we’ve had almost 500 nominations to date.  To power the nomination form, we use Zapier.  Zapier connects different online platforms using an “if this, then that” logic.  In our case, we built a nomination form using Screendoor and connected it to Zapier.  When an individual submits a nomination, Screendoor pushes that information to Zapier, which then automates a email from my TechCongress Gmail account to the nominee.  The nominee gets a note saying that they’ve been nominated by the nominator, and encourages them to visit the website and blog, and join our email list for updates.  And the nominator gets an email from me thanking them for nominating.  It’s a great way to drive action and spread the word.  

Scheduling / Meetings

In year one of TechCongress, we secured seed funding in late fall, giving us 24 days to recruit our first class of fellows.  Without enough lead time to organize any recruitment events, we opted for conference calls.  UberConference was a godsend.  I ran the conferences by myself, moderating the calls and leading the conversation.  UberConference ($10/month for premium) provides a set call in number, with no need for a pin, and also allows individuals to join online.  The moderator can manage the call from the web, with an easy dashboard, allowing the individual to mute and unmute people as needed.  You can also record the calls for future use.

Scheduling takes an extraordinary amount of time, and I hope at some point someone builds a tool that can allow all of us to schedule efficiently without feeling too impersonal.  I had great hopes for X.AI, and an automate artificial intelligence but after a trying (and failing) to set up a dinner as a test, I had no choice but to fire my AI assistant, Andrew.

Calendly can feel impersonal and too blunt for one-on-one scheduling (I like to group my calls or meetings back to back for efficiency),  but it is great for bulk scheduling.  When scheduling interviews with prospective candidates, rather than working through logistics with each person, we send a Calendly link, allowing people to select times that best work for their schedule.  It then automates a Google Calendar invite with the relevant information (like location or video conference link).

For the video interviews themselves— our first interviews for the fellowship are all over video— we started with Google Hangouts, which is free, and easy because it’s linked in every calendar entry.  We found that in 15% of interviews, however,  an echo would develop at some point in the conversation.  We tried all sorts of solutions— using stationary mics, having interviewees use earbuds, muting and unmuting as each party talked— but none worked perfectly, and the echoes were extraordinarily jarring.  

For 2017, we switched to Zoom ($10/month), and are very satisfied with the results.  Zoom also has a Google Calendar add on, so we’re still able to embed a video link in each calendar entry.  We have yet to experience an echo with Zoom.  

Finance, Expenses and Accounting

All of those $10/month platforms add up, though, and it’s really important to keep track of expenses!  I have two tricks that make this easier.  First, I have a credit card that’s dedicated to work expenses,, allowing me to keep a separate ledger of all my business costs.  Second, I use Expensify, which syncs with my bank and imports my transactions.  Expensify uses optical character recognition to scan receipts— using the Expensify app, or by forwarding email receipts to a specific email address—and matches each with the transaction history from my credit card.  It creates automatic expense reports which include the list of transactions, and thumbnail images and full size images of receipts.  

Freshbooks performs a similar function.  It connects to your bank to track transactions, but it allows for custom invoicing.  The invoice system can connect to your bank, allowing you to issue invoices and collect money.

Feedback and ideas

Starting TechCongress on my own was hard.  When people ask what I’d do differently if I were to start TechCongress again, the answer is easy: find a cofounder.  Indeed, leaders in tech say having only one founder is the single biggest mistake a startup can make. For me, the challenge of being a solo founder wasn’t about my capacity to get things done, it was about isolation, and how difficult it was to make decisions on my own.

To ward off that isolation, I leaned on the wisdom of the crowd.  A lot.  I used Facebook dozens and dozens of times to source ideas on everything from crowdfunding to legal structure to advice for fellows from former Congressional staffers.  

And I conducted one-on-one interviews with anyone I could talk to— funders, prospective applicants, university faculty and Congressional staff— which I recorded in a Google Spreadsheet.   I had 20 rows of open-ended questions.  Each interviewee had a column, and as I conducted interviews— all over the phone, to make interviewing easier— I’d work down row by row and record their responses.  At the end, I’d note any highlights or insights.  And after several interviews, I could look column to column to compare responses, and look for patterns.  It was a hugely instructive process.  

At the end of the day, the most important thing you can be doing as a founder is learning.  And that’s why I wrote this blog, and why we have our What We Learned series.

And I’m sure there are tools or strategies we’ve missed, or should be using.  If you have a great tool you use, leave that information in the comments.

[Editorial note: we have not been compensated in any way by any of the companies or platforms listed here. This post is entirely based on our own experience with these tools.]

[Creative Commons image courtesy of WOCinTechChat]